Review of Hello Friend We Missed You by Richard Owain Roberts, pub. Parthian 2020
“There are at least thirty people around a large fire; some of them dancing to drum and bass being played off a portable Bose speaker, some of them sitting on small camping chairs, talking to each other with focused facial expressions. Hill stops walking and immediately feels self-conscious.
Please, a tidal wave, Hill thinks.”
I had heard a lot about this novel, before reading it, from various people, few of whom agreed about it. A word that cropped up again and again was “marmite”, ie you’re either going to love it or hate it, and I think that may be true for many readers. It is even true of certain elements of it – for instance, the protagonist Hill, known by his surname, introverted, desperately uneasy in company, struck an immediate chord with me; I found him relatable and interesting. By contrast his girlfriend Trudy was, to me, dislikeable and irritating in the extreme. I know, having read some reader reactions, that many have just the opposite experience (rather like real life, then).
Some who dislike it cite the writing style, finding it unduly “clever” and affected. In this I think they are mistaken, for Roberts is using no stylistic device without a reason. It is true, for instance, that at times there is a great deal of repetition, also that often the syntax is broken down into individual thoughts and actions in a deconstructed, Janet & John sort of way:
“A medium-sized motorboat picks up a group of eight people from the pier. The people are happy. They are happy because they are going to see dolphins swimming in the wild.”
Both these techniques are mirroring the point-of-view character’s state of mind. Hill’s life at this point is full of fairly aimless repetition, as is his brooding on past events, notably the death of his wife. And he is living not just from day to day but pretty much from minute to minute, hence the stop-start syntax. In fact, this technique works well both for mirroring Hill’s hesitant, self-analysing attempts to move forward and for pointing up the disconnect between words and feelings:
“Stuart looks at his watch and says he has to get home to his wife and kids. He takes his phone out of his trouser pocket and suggests he and Hill swap numbers.
Great, Hill says.
Why, Hill thinks.”
It’s also, as will be evident from the above quotes, often quite funny, albeit in a dark way, perhaps never more so than in one of the many draft emails with which we must hope Hill, a film-maker, does not actually pester Jack Black. I have seldom seen tone of voice better conveyed in writing than by the apparently simple device of highlighting every cliché with quote marks:
“Have you ever had to deal with a terminally ill person, ‘Jack’? Unlike, or like – I guess it’s subjective, your films, it’s not a ‘barrel of laughs’. It’s ‘really fucking awful’. Roger is not going to ‘make it through this’, this is one ‘battle’ that he is not going to ‘win’. What was/is your father like? Is he ‘belligerent’? Is he ‘for all intents and purposes’ the ‘reason’ your mother died? Has he ‘skewered’ your ‘world view’ ‘seemingly permanently’? Does he ‘suck’? Do we have this ‘in common’? I’m trying to find ‘commonality’ between us, so you can maybe ‘go the extra mile’ towards putting some ‘concrete steps’ in place to make my life ‘better’. I have less money today than the day we Skyped. Is that ‘bittersweet’ for me?”
This is, quite often, a novel about things that don’t happen: a film project that doesn’t look like getting made, a relationship that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, remarks not uttered, emails not sent, a conversation between father and son that (probably) never happens. If you want a novel with conventional narrative techniques, a lot of forward momentum and resolution, this probably isn’t the one for you. But it occurs to me that real life, right now, doesn’t have much of those either. I’ve heard this described as “millennial”, which sounds like one of those silly boxes that critics try to cram art into against its will. But it could certainly be called a novel for our times. As so often happens, this at first seems accidental, for it was written pre-pandemic.
However, any novel that manages to catch a zeitgeist has probably tapped into current concerns at a deeper level than just keeping up with the news. This one was voted winner of the Guardian’s “Not the Booker Prize” by its readers. No doubt it was happenstance that many were reading in lockdown, feeling their lives were on hold and wondering where, if anywhere, they were going, both literally and otherwise. Hill would have resonated as an avatar with them. But perhaps also the enforced pause of the pandemic caused them to begin wondering if they had been going anywhere before, in which case Hill and his novel would have even more relevance to them.